Ranking the Top NBA Prospects Under 21 Before 2014-15 Season

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJuly 28, 2014

Ranking the Top NBA Prospects Under 21 Before 2014-15 Season

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    The NBA's future appears to be in good hands, between some young returning sophomores and incoming rookies.

    It's hard to believe that the players listed here are only 18, 19 and 20 years old.

    The following prospects are the top dogs under 21 ranked based on potential. We're talking long term here, not just the 2014-15 season.

    To be eligible, the prospect has to be under 21 to start the 2014-15 season.

    That means Andre Drummond, Nik Stauskas and T.J. Warren are all ineligible.

12. Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Zach LaVine is fueled by some mesmerizing bounce and athleticism, which, when paired with his 6'5" size, ball-handling skills and shooting touch, form a devastating punch of offense.

    He's more of a scorer than a facilitator, but based on his ability to create off the dribble, LaVine should be capable of holding down secondary ball-handling duties.

    LaVine's core strengths revolve around his open-floor electricity and perimeter-scoring arsenal. He's automatic on the break, where he can fly down the floor and explode above the rim. And in the half court, he's got the ability to generate offense on demand, whether he's separating into a step-back jumper or pulling up right over his defender.

    The big question with LaVine is whether he can get away with his preferred shot selection. He takes too many low-percentage jumpers, and given his 180-pound frame and struggles finishing in traffic, you worry inefficiency will end up weighing down his production.

    From a talent perspective, LaVine is can't-miss when you take into account his elite athleticism and guard skills.

    He just has to find a way to channel his strengths and minimize his inefficiency as a combo guard, and that could be challenging, regardless of his talent level.

11. Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Julius Randle's blend of quickness and strength makes him a tough cover from the elbows and block, where he can either face and attack the rim or bully his way for a bucket underneath.

    He's got some impressive offensive instincts in terms of being able to score at awkward angles with those one-handed flip shots.

    But we haven't seen much of a perimeter game or jumper from Randle, who didn't record one field goal outside the paint in his four Las Vegas Summer League games.

    You'll often see him pass up open jumpers to try to get closer to the rim, leading to off-balance shots in crowds.

    He'll need to eventually develop a jumper, as defenses are bound to sag and take away the drive. For the most part, they did in Vegas, where Randle shot just 41.9 percent.

    But that's really the only missing piece right now to Randle's offensive game. Due to his scoring prowess in the lane, along with his rebounding instincts and athleticism for the position, Randle has long-term starting-power-forward potential.

10. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

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    At just 18 years old, Aaron Gordon isn't quite ready to make an impact, if you couldn't tell from the Orlando Summer League, where he averaged just 7.8 points a game on 35 percent shooting.

    Gordon was drafted No. 4 overall based on the long-term upside that's tied to his elite athletic ability and defensive versatility.

    Offensively, he's an easy-bucket machine around the rim, whether it's off a lob, dump pass, tip-in or line drive to the rack. Credit that to his hand-eye coordination and 39" max vertical leap.

    But he's limited off the bounce in terms of his ability to create. Gordon handles the ball well in the open floor, though he struggles in tight spaces when the game slows down.

    His shooting touch and range also need major work—Gordon was 0-of-10 from downtown in the summer league, while his free-throw stroke remains a disaster (42.2 percent at Arizona, 47.8 percent in the summer league).

    But at this point, Gordon's real appeal stems from the work he does at the defensive end, where he led the country in defensive win shares as a freshman, per Sports-Reference.com. With the fastest shuttle-run time (ability to change directions) at the combine, Gordon has the lateral quickness and length to defend guards and wings on the perimeter, along with the 6'9" size to hold his own in the post.

    Look for his defensive presence to be felt immediately and his offensive game to slowly develop over time. I dig the Shawn Marion-in-his-prime comparison.

9. Noah Vonleh, Charlotte Hornets

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    To rank Noah Vonleh this high, you have to have an imagination and some belief that the flashes will soon evolve into steady occurrences.

    He's got all the tools in the bag and shots in the arsenal, from his 6'10" size and 7'4.25" wingspan to his refined post moves and threatening jumper.

    From here on out, it's just a matter of sharpening and fine-tuning everything, as well as identifying his spots on the floor and developing some level of comfort from each.

    Adjusting to the size and strength of the NBA's interior won't happen right away—chances are you won't hear much from Vonleh in 2014-15. He struggled mightily in his first summer league, with CBS Sports' Matt Moore going as far as to say that Vonleh was "miserable from the floor."

    But with a growing 247-pound frame and some overwhelming measurements, it's really only a matter of time because the skill set and work ethic are there.

    And at 18 years old, time is on his side. Vonleh will end up having two full years of NBA experience before turning 21. I think he uses those two years to slowly develop that inside-outside skill set and ultimately blossom into Charlotte's starting power forward.

8. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

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    Marcus Smart has some wrinkles in his game he'll eventually need to iron out, but his offensive strengths and defensive tools are practically guaranteed to translate. And that gives him one of those safe, high-basement floors.

    As a combo guard measuring in at 6'3.25" with shoes on (at the combine), Smart's upside is debatable—but there isn't much downside attached to him at all.

    At 227 pounds with overwhelming strength, blazing quickness and disruptive length, Smart has tremendous physical tools to match his two-way instincts, live motor and sharp competitive edge.

    Offensively, he's tough to stop from getting to the rack once he's gotten a step. As a facilitator, Smart struggles with decision making, but he's an exceptional passer as a cog within the offense, whether he's running the point or dishing from the wing.

    Defensively, he's a hard-nosed ball-stopper and active playmaker who brings contagious energy, something that should earn him playing time early on despite his shooting troubles (below 30 percent from downtown in both college seasons) and shot selection.

    I like to think of Smart as a guy with Lance Stephenson's toughness and strength mixed with Jarrett Jack's playmaking versatility and limitations.

7. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic

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    Elfrid Payton is an interesting prospect when you consider how much of his outlook is tied to one simple aspect of his game.

    Will he ever develop a jumper? If he does, the danger he poses to defenses multiplies. But at this point, he's hit 30 three-pointers total through three college seasons, and despite his remarkable ability to get to the line (ranked second in the country in free-throw attempts as a junior), he's never made more than 65 percent of his attempts in a year.

    Otherwise, Payton is a terrific talent with starting-point-guard potential and plenty of college production to show for it (averaged 19.2 points, 5.9 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals in 2013-14).

    At 6'4", he's an excellent athlete with great size and quickness at the point. Payton's ability to get into the lane lands him in constant playmaking position, whether it's as a passer or a scorer.

    He's also an excellent defender with long arms that can become quite disruptive.

    But there aren't too many point guards who've succeeded without being able to threaten the defense as a shooter, particularly with the pull-up jumper over screens.

    However, shooting can always improve, and at 20 years old, Payton has the time to make it happen.

6. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz

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    There's just so much mystery and uncertainty surrounding Dante Exum, who's generated tons of hype based on two tournaments (FIBA World Championships) and an exhibition game (Nike Hoop Summit).

    But the flashes we've seen have been captivating—at 6'5", Exum has a point guard's handle and playmaking ability with the size, athleticism and scoring arsenal of a 2-guard.

    It's just a rare combination of physical and fundamental strengths—a combination that plays to his two-way upside and versatility as a combo guard.

    He also appears to be an exceptionally bright kid with a great feel for the game.

    Exum struggled a bit in the Las Vegas Summer League, having shot just 30.8 percent and averaged more turnovers than assists. But again, he managed to flash brilliance sporadically throughout the event, and if those flashes ever turn into regular, every-game occurrences, we could be talking about one of the toughest backcourt mismatches around.

5. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers

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    We're still waiting on Nerlens Noel's NBA debut, but if his high school career, 24-game college career or five summer-league games mean anything, his future as a pro should be awfully bright.

    Of course, having missed the entire 2013-14 season recovering from a torn ACL, we'll have to keep an eye on his knee and durability.

    But Noel looked healthy and explosive in July's Orlando and Vegas leagues, where he was blocking shots like he was when he led the country at Kentucky.

    With 6'11" size, quick feet, great bounce and a 7'4" wingspan, Noel has top-shelf rim-protection tools to match some unteachable shot-blocking instincts.

    And though he's a bit behind in terms of creating offense, his ability to finish it is elite. Noel gets up high above the rim for lobs, dunks off dump passes and tip-ins off misses.

    If Noel can build up some lower- and upper-body strength and expand on his scoring repertoire in the post—this summer, we did see flashes of the jump hook and an attack game from the elbows—the Philadelphia 76ers will have found themselves one dangerous frontcourt weapon.

4. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jabari Parker often appeared like a pro playing among college kids at Duke. Between the fadeaways in the post and the pull-up jumpers on the perimeter—not to mention that 6'8" size and mobility—he showcased the complete offensive package with a body capable of delivering.

    Parker is the type of scorer who can go get a bucket with the game slowed down.

    He also led the ACC in rebounding as a freshman, having demonstrated a sense of fearlessness and willingness to bang inside.

    But as a scorer, his first step is underwhelming, as is his last when exploding upward. Parker could have a tougher time separating at the pro level against quicker, longer and more athletic forwards.

    He's also not very light on his feet, particularly with his lateral movement, which limits his defensive ability.

    But there's no doubting his offensive skills and the potential that's tied to them. Parker's advanced and versatile scoring repertoire could lead to multiple All-Star invitations.

    It's just going to require some adjusting as a shot-maker and creator.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    As an 18-year-old rookie having come from Greece's second division, there was some uncertainty as to how and if Giannis Antetokounmpo would fit in the NBA game. There isn't anymore.

    He showed tremendous promise as a rookie, even if it came in spurts. And though I normally wouldn't put much stock in the summer league, the Greek Freak's performance in Vegas this July was eye-opening.

    Not only has he reportedly grown from 6'9" to nearly 6'11", according to Bucks general manager John Hammond, via Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but his offensive game also appeared a lot more refined.

    From step-backs and pull-ups to crafty finishes in the lane, Antetokounmpo has showcased the scoring arsenal of a wing blended with the size of a 4 and handle of a point guard.

    Coach Jason Kidd even mentioned he plans on experimenting with Antetokounmpo at the point, a position he played as a prospect in Greece.

    "We've seen it in practice," Kidd told Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel. "When you see a player's comfort level with the ball—no matter what size—we wanted to see it in game action. We slowly have started letting him have the ball and running the offense."

    Between his offensive versatility and defensive upside (potential to guard up to four positions), along with his unique background and youth as a 19-year-old sophomore, I'm not even sure we can identify or fairly project his NBA ceiling.

    I'm fully buying into Antetokounmpo as one of the game's premier young talents and up-and-coming stars. He still has a ways to go, but the path he's on could really lead to something special.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Had Joel Embiid not suffered a stress fracture in his back and a broken bone in his foot, he'd probably be considered the best prospect on the planet who couldn't legally order a beer. But it's impossible to ignore the durability and fragility factors.

    You have to take injury history and patterns into account when evaluating Embiid.

    Having said that, we're not just talking about another "raw 7-footer with potential." At full strength, Embiid has a polished offensive game with go-to moves and others to counter with.

    And with his massive 7'5" wingspan, nifty footwork and soft touch, he's consistently able to create for himself and make high-percentage shots in the post.

    We're talking about a potential primary option and double-team magnet on offense.

    Defensively, Embiid has the instincts and physical tools to develop into one of the game's premier rim-protectors.

    I'm not sure anyone under 21 has a higher two-way ceiling than Embiid. The only question is whether his body was built to withstand the grind attached to the journey.

1. Andrew Wiggins, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nobody under 21 offers a more promising mix of upside and certainty than Andrew Wiggins.

    He didn't quite run away as the No. 1 overall favorite the way the hype led you to believe he would, but Wiggins still managed to average 17.1 points a game as a freshman against first-rate college competition.

    And he did it all without the polish he'll acquire over time.

    We've seen it all, from step-back and pull-up jumpers to spin moves in the lane and explosive drives to the rack. More polish, particularly to his handle and jumper, should result in more consistency down the road.

    Defensively, he projects as a major asset with lockdown tools consisting of 6'8" size and 7'0" length to match some lightning-quick lateral foot speed.

    There isn't really any bust potential associated with Wiggins, given his world-class athleticism, shot-making ability and defensive versatility. And that speaks to the safety and certainty he brings to the table as a prospect.

    But in terms of upside, Wiggins has the talent and skill set to emerge as one of the game's top two-way wings.

    We've already seen significant progress from Wiggins since his first month at Kansas. Assuming he continues to grow, both mentally and fundamentally, he has to be the No. 1 pick in a re-draft consisting of NBA players under 21.